“Oh what a circus, oh what a show.” It was time for Hollywood’s biggest night of the year, the 89th Academy Awards. Voting ended on Tuesday, Feb 21st, but right up to the last minute, pundits and critics were adjusting their antennae and changing their minds about where to place their bets for Best Picture — on Moonlight or La La Land.
Backstage Press Room preparations started early in the week, with the annual walk-through and guidelines for what to wear, instructions about how everything operated, and most importantly, bestowing the top secret credentials which this year had a strange orange Trump-like glow to them.
I covered the press interview room for Awards Daily for the second year in a row and already felt like a pro, compared to last year’s anxious nerves. This year, my only problem was choosing the right Oscar gown. Remember folks, this is the Oscars. Men are strictly instructed to spruce up with black tie attire, and women must arrive in formal gowns or tea-length dresses. (If you’re 5 feet tall, as I am, tea length will graze the floor). I had originally planned to wear a Tom Ford-esque gown to the Oscars, black and dangerously low-cut. But when I tried it on, let’s just say it was a big no. So I spent Friday night test-driving five gowns in the changing room at Bloomingdales, praying at least one would work.
What I ended up wearing
Fast Forward to Sunday morning. I woke up singing “Another Day of Sun.” Humming the lyrics while outside the gloomy sky seemed to mock me. In fact, it looked a bit like the swimming scene in Moonlight where the sky is overcast and somewhat threatening. I didn’t take it as a bad omen of what was to come, but on reflection…
While most of us tune into the Oscars around 3pm PST (or 5pm if you’re not interested in Oscar fashion and you just skip straight to the show), the actual preparation starts earlier.
The interview room is where all the Oscar winners come after accepting their statuette, to speak to the World’s press. It’s a lot like an auction where you’re assigned a number and you raise your number if you want to ask a question. I set my laptop down if a safe place, made sure the internet was working, and off I went down to snap some photos of the red carpet. Awards Daily was not doing red carpet interviews this year, but that didn’t mean we couldn’t go down to observe the calm before the storm.
You can see some more of the photos on the Awards Daily Instagram page.
At last, the show kicked off. Colleen Atwood made an appearance backstage. Shocked from her win, she was even more surprised to learn the Harry Potter had never won for costumes. “That’s shocking. Because there’s so much incredible kind of artistry in the Harry Potter movies. I think maybe the fact that this movie, J.K. Rowling’s creation, is set in the 1920s, which kind of keyed off a different sort of visual sense might be the kind of obvious thing.” Atwood added, “I can’t believe it never won for that incredible clockwork, you know, creation of Stuart Craig’s in the Harry Potter movies. I wasn’t aware of that.”
Watch her speech below:
It was no surprise to most of us that The Salesman won Best Foreign Film at the Oscars. This was Asghar Farhadi’s second Oscar win. But due to Trump’s travel ban, Farhadi had chosen not to attend. In his place, Anousheh Ansari, a Iranian-US engineer, came on stage and read a prepared statement:
“I will be reading a statement by Mr. Farhadi. It’s a great honor to be receiving this valuable award for the second time. I would like to thank the members of the Academy, my crew in Iran, my producer Alexandre Mallet-Guy, Cohen Media, Amazon and my fellow nominees in the foreign film category. I’m sorry I’m not with you tonight. My absence is out of respect for the people of my country and those of other six nations whom have been disrespected by the inhumane law that bans entry of immigrants to the U.S. Dividing the world into the us and our enemies categories creates fear. A deceitful justification for aggression and war. These wars prevent democracy and human rights in countries which have themselves been victims of aggression. Filmmakers can turn their cameras to capture shared human qualities and break stereotypes of various nationalities and religions. They create empathy between us and others. An empathy which we need today more than ever. Thank you on behalf of Mr. Farhadi.”
Backstage, Firouz Naderi and Anousheh Ansari faced the press:
The room was next informed that Viola Davis and Mahershala Ali, both of whom had won in the supporting categories would be coming in after the show ended. Little did anyone anticipate the stunning Oscar history about to be made at the evening’s climax. Ali had already made Oscar history as the first Muslim to win an Oscar.
Then came the Best Picture Presentation. Here is the official Academy transcript that was sent out:
And the Academy Award [looks down at envelope…] for Best Picture…
[Off mike: You’re impossible.]
[Hands envelope to Faye Dunaway]
[Off mike: Go on.] [Takes envelope] “La La Land.”
Thank you. Thank you all. Thank you to the Academy. Thank you to Lionsgate. Thank you to our incredible cast and crew who are all up here right now. Thank you to Jamie Feldman, to Gary Gilbert. Thank you to my parents for supporting my choice to pursue a career in the arts even though it was a little bit crazy. Arthur Horowitz, you are my fantasy baby. And to my kind, generous, talented, beautiful, blue-eyed wife and creative partner Julia Hart, you have inspired me to become the man I am right now—and more importantly, the man I’m still becoming. There’s a lot of love in this room, and let’s use it to create and champion bold and diverse work—work that inspires us towards joy, towards hope, and towards empathy.
Here’s to the fools who made me dream: my uncle Gary Platt, my mentor Sam Cohn, my parents, my children, my wife Julie, on whose shoulders I’ve stood for 40 years because she insisted I reach for the stars, and to the Hollywood community that I’m so proud to be a part of. And to the Hollywood in the hearts and minds of people everywhere. [Behind Platt, a production crew member is showing the other two producers the correct winner card.] Repression is the enemy of civilization—so keep dreaming, because the dreams we dream today will provide the love, the compassion and the humanity that will narrate the stories of our lives tomorrow. Fred?
[Shakes his head “no,” then goes up to the microphone] To the love of my life, Ally Logan, I’m because of you. I love you so much. To my family, mama , papa, Jeff [unintelligible], you kicked this off, and Damien Chazelle, for standing on your shoulders… We lost, by the way. But, you know. There’s a mistake.
Guys, guys, I’m sorry, no, there’s a mistake. “Moonlight,” you guys won best picture.
This is not a joke. Come up here.
This is not a joke. I’m afraid they read the wrong thing.
This is not a joke. MOONLIGHT has won Best Picture. “Moonlight,” Best Picture [He holds up the card announcing the winner]
[addressing the “La La Land” producers] I think you guys should keep it anyway.
This is very unfortunate what happened. Personally, I blame Steve Harvey for this. I would like to see you get an Oscar anyway [talking to Jordon Horowitz]. Why can’t we just give out a whole bunch of them.
I’m going to be really proud to hand this to my friends from “Moonlight.”
That’s nice of you, that’s very nice.
Hello, hello. I want…
Warren, what did you do?!
I want to tell you what happened. I opened the envelope and it said: Emma Stone, “La La Land.” That’s why I took such a long look at Faye and at you. I wasn’t trying to be funny.
Well, you were funny.
Thank you very much. This is “Moonlight,” the Best Picture.
Very clearly, very clearly, even in my dreams, this could not be true. But to hell with dreams, I’m done with it, ’cause this is true. Oh my goodness.
Thank you, thank you.
And I have to say and it is true, it’s not fake. We’ve been on the road with these guys for so long and that was so gracious, so generous of them. My love to “La La Land,” my love to everybody. Man.
Thank you to the Academy. I don’t know what to say. That was really… I’m not sure… I’m still not sure this is real. But thank you to the Academy. It is so humbling to be standing up here with hopefully still the “La La” crew, no, okay, they’re gone. But it’s very humbling to be up here. And I think, I hope even more than that, that it’s inspiring to people, little black boys and brown girls and other folks watching at home who feel marginalized and who take some inspiration from seeing this beautiful group of artists helmed by this amazing talent, my friend Barry Jenkins, standing up here on this stage accepting this top honor. Thank you.
There was a time when I thought this movie was impossible because I couldn’t bring it to fruition, I couldn’t bring myself to tell another story. And so everybody behind me on this stage said, “No, that is not acceptable.” So I just want to thank everybody up here behind me, everybody out there in that room, because we didn’t do this, you guys chose us. Thank you for the choice. I appreciate it. Much love.
Good night. Thank you so much.
Well, I don’t know what happened. I blame myself for this. Let’s remember, it’s just an awards show. I mean, we hate to see people disappointed but the good news is, we got to see some extra speeches. We had some great movies. I knew I would screw this show up, I really did. Thank you for watching. I’m back to work tomorrow night at my regular show. I promise I’ll never come back. Good night.
The buzz in the interview room crackled with shaken reaction. What had we just witnessed? What was happening? What would happen next? What did Warren do? What film won? How? Why? What? Was this really part of the show? A million questions were left hanging in the air unanswered. Nearly three minutes passed that felt like a slo-motion dream sequence before it became clear that Moonlight had indeed officially won Best Picture.
In the clip below. listen to the sheer joy we felt for the Moonlight team when they entered the room. Jenkins was asked what went through his head. “I applauded like everyone else,” he answered. “I noticed the commotion that was happening, and I thought something strange had occurred. And then I’m sure everybody saw my face. But I was speechless… I’ve watched the Academy Awards, and I’ve never seen that happen before. And so it made a very special feeling even more special, but not in the way I expected.”
Asked for further reactions, Jenkins stressed to the journalists in the room, “I will say to all you people, please write this down: The folks from La La Land were so gracious. I can’t imagine being in their position and having to do that. We spent a lot of time together over the last six months, and I can’t imagine being in their position and having to do that. So it’s why — I wasn’t speechless because we won — I was speechless because it was so gracious of them to do that.”
Emma Stone who won for Best Actress was one of the first to meet the press after what had happened on stage. She emphasized how much she loved Moonlight, “I fucking love Moonlight.” She later said, “I was so excited for Moonlight. And of course, you know, it was an amazing thing to hear La La Land. I think we all would have loved to win Best Picture, but we are so excited for Moonlight. I think it’s one of the best films of all time. So I was pretty beside myself. I also was holding my Best Actress in a Leading Role card that entire time. So, whatever story ‑‑ I don’t mean to start stuff, but whatever story that was, I had that card. So I’m not sure what happened. And I really wanted to talk to you guys first. Congratulations Moonlight. Hell, yeah.”
The first-time Oscar winner went far beyond the call of duty to smooth out the confusion. Undaunted, she still planned on celebrating, “I’m going to go out with a bunch of my friends and dance and drink champagne. That’s pretty much the only plan.”
I did manage to get a few questions in, one to Mahershala Ali who won for Moonlight. I asked him about the pressure of playing a role that was so personal to both Jenkins and McCraney. “I think I always want to walk away from any project feeling like the writer, director was pleased with what I had to offer, he said. “Considering the personal nature of this project, I think there was a need that felt a little heightened to get it truthful, where they could walk away and feel like I really contributed to their film, and didn’t screw it up.”
When Viola Davis won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress it came as no surprise. In the same way her acceptance speech moved people to tears, Davis broke down backstage as she opened up to reporters about how it felt to be standing up there. “It’s not my style to just kind of wake up and go, ‘Oh, I’m an Oscar winner. Oh, my gosh, let me go for a run.’ You know. I’m good with it. I’ll have some mac and cheese, and I’ll go back to washing my daughter’s hair tomorrow night. But this is the first time in my life that I’ve stepped back ‑‑ and I’m going to try not to cry now… All of a sudden, be cheesy. And I can’t believe my life. You know, I mean, my sister is here somewhere, and I grew up in poverty. You know, I grew up in apartments that were condemned and rat‑infested, and I just always sort of wanted to be somebody. And I just wanted to be good at something. And so this is sort of like the miracle of God. Of dreaming big and just hoping that it sticks and it lands, and it did. Who knew? So I’m overwhelmed. ”
Yours truly asked Davis a question about how the role of Rose challenged her. “Everything about Rose challenged me. Rose just kind of seemingly just being sometimes at peace with being in the background was hard to play. Rose getting to a place of forgiveness was hard to play. I never hit it with that last scene when I did 114 performances on stage. I didn’t understand the last speech when she said, you know, ‘I gave up my life to make him bigger.’ I didn’t get that. But what Rose has taught me is a lot of what my mom has taught me: That my mom has lived a really hard life, but she still has an abundance of love. And that’s the thing, you know. That’s the thing about life. You go through it, and you ‑‑ just terrible things happen to you, beautiful things happen to you — and then you try to just stand up every day. But that’s not the point. The point is feeling all those things but still connecting to people, still being able to love people. And that was the best thing about playing Rose because I’m not there yet. Even at 51, sometimes I just kind of live in my anger.”
Watch the speech below:
Watching the Oscars on TV is one thing. Watching them live and from behind the scenes is quite another. It’s a marvelous experience, surreal, and it’s hard not to get excited when a winner steps onto that platform, sharing in their joy for a few minutes. You get choked up at the In Memoriam bit, you chuckle with fellow reporters, you share in the excitement, and gasp at the surprises or two — or in this year’s case, you listen to jaws dropping all around you. It’s a golden experience and a perfect fairy tale ending to the journey of this remarkable awards season. And now, we look ahead to the next…